How developing interpersonal skills can help us to make positive changes in schools

In this article Karen Waterston explores how building relationships, thinking critically and increasing motivation can be used to make positive changes.

Let’s start at the beginning of a new job. A dream job. Having worked with individual teachers in different schools for a number of years, an opportunity came along to work at the whole school level. From the principal to administrators, teachers and parents, everyone working together to provide the young learners in the community with an educational opportunity to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Where to begin? Systemic change cannot happen overnight, but the very fact that the school had employed me was indicative of their recognition that change, however challenging, had to be implemented.

Building relationships

With this in mind, I began by spending time in the classrooms, informally sitting at a table of learners, trying to be as unobtrusive as I could. I joined the admin staff, teachers and learners for school lunch. I played games with the learners during the breaks. I participated in the morning exercises during assembly. Engaging with these groups helped me to build trusting relationships which was essential as the first step to making systemic change successful.

It became apparent that there were some areas I could work on with the teachers that would positively affect the learners. Areas that could be developed quickly, while the systematic change could take its slower course. The teachers could still complete their lesson plans in the same way, filling in their learning objectives and competencies while simultaneously making small, yet significant, changes in the learning experience. There was pressure coming from the principal and the school administrators to complete the textbook in order for exams to be taken. This was an important factor to take into account when I was working with the teachers. New ideas would not be taken on board if the teachers felt they could not complete the textbook. However, if I could find a way to introduce incremental steps in the classroom, this could pave the way for bigger changes to take place. It was important for me to recognise the constraints the teachers were working against.

First I needed the teachers to trust me and experience these different techniques. I taught English classes after work, open to anyone (excluding learners). I carefully chose lessons that would be practical and which demonstrated techniques I wanted the teachers to use in their own classrooms. The other members of the school community who attended these classes became ambassadors of the beginnings of an alternative approach.

These techniques were:

  • walking around the room
  • using praise
  • different ways of choral drilling (varying the voice in particular)
  • tell your partner the answer then tell the teacher (think, pair, share)
  • nominating different people to answer questions rather than shouting out
  • write answers on a paper and hold it up
  • wait time after asking a question
  • using pairs and groups

I specifically chose techniques that would not detract from following the textbook.

Thinking critically

After about three English lessons, we had our first development meeting as a group of teachers together. The first thing I did was to do some voice projection work with the teachers. This convinced them that they could be heard from the back of the class and with class sizes of only 25, it was manageable for them. I referred back to my English classes and asked them to draw a picture of our classroom. I asked them to mark where I stood during the lesson. We talked about how they felt when I moved around, when I sat with them, when I was at their eye level.

I then removed their microphones. This meant that they had to get up from behind the teacher’s desk and move around.

Initially, they were a little worried, but after the first lesson with no microphones, they said that the learners paid more attention. By standing at the front of the class, they had more presence and immediately the learners had their heads up. I took photos to show the difference to the teachers. A few weeks later, one of the teachers reminisced about having microphones as if it were a distant and forgotten memory. They did not want them back again.

This approach introduced the teachers to critical thinking – it involved them in observing, evaluating, experimenting and reflecting on new techniques. This is a skill I encouraged them to apply regularly in their work. I often asked the teachers what they thought, how they felt and what they noticed in their classrooms. I became known as the one who asked a lot of questions.

Increasing motivation

While spending time around the school, I became aware of the beautiful artwork on the walls, intricate posters and classroom displays. I admired these wonderful creations on a daily basis. After a workshop on grouping learners and a discussion on classroom routines, I noticed that one of the teachers had made a wall display with a transparent pocket for each learner. In each pocket was a name card. The teacher and I talked about ways the chart could be used for grouping learners, for taking the register and for group leader roles. She was soon using the wall chart to great effect. In the next workshop, she presented her wall chart to the other teachers and talked about ways she had used it for the register, roles, groups and pair work. The conversation soon switched to mother tongue, with the teachers animatedly discussing how they could make their own charts and how they could use them in their own classrooms.

Within a week, all the teachers had a variation of a names wall chart. The result in the classrooms was a lot more group and pair work with different learners taking on group leader roles, timekeeping roles and notetaker roles. This in turn led to more collaboration. The teachers noticed the difference which gave them more confidence to try other new ideas. Small changes matter. Both teachers and learners were much more motivated, a powerful tool for change.

After about 6 months of small changes, I could start the process of a bigger, systemic change.

Task 1 - Small changes

  • What small changes can be made in the classrooms you are working in? Have a look at the ideas mentioned earlier in the article.
  • Could the teachers you work with try any of these ideas?
  • Encourage the teachers you work with to try a small idea.
  • Ask them if they noticed a difference after trying the idea.
  • Have a look at the table below for some suggested changes and expected outcomes.
  • Can you add more to the table below?
Small change What happens after the change
Name wall chart More collaboration
No microphones Teachers walking around the classroom
Walk to the back of the classroom 

Learners at the back pay more attention

Praise learners both individually and as a whole group Learners more interested in the lesson
Vary choral drilling techniques Learners more engaged
Ask a question then wait 10 seconds then nominate learners All learners pay more attention
Ask groups to choose a spokesperson More engagement in group work

Task 2 - Teacher positioning

Invite a teacher you mentor to sit in your class. Give them a piece of A4 paper. Ask them to draw a diagram of the classroom, where the learners sit, where the teacher’s table is, where the board is.

As you teach, tell them to make a mark each time you move. Look at the diagram together afterwards and discuss the effect of moving around the classroom.

Sit in the classroom with the teacher you mentor. Repeat the same process. Mark where the teacher stands as the lesson progresses. Discuss the picture together at the end of the lesson to see if there is any room for improvement.

About the author

From her first group of learners in 1991 in Athens, Greece, Karen Waterston has taught Young Learners, Teenagers, Adults, Business and Academic English and exam preparation classes. Karen started working with teachers in Senegal in 2001 and has worked with teachers on four continents, learning all the time. Karen has a Master’s degree in ELT and Educational Technology. She is particularly interested in the teaching moments that create change.

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